On Sept. 29, 1961, a New York Times headline proclaimed: “Bob Dylan: A Distinctive Stylist.” Beneath it was a picture of the chubby-cheeked young man who had arrived in New York from Minnesota nine months earlier.
The review of Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village was by critic Robert Shelton, whose prescience was remarkable. Dylan’s talent was raw indeed, and three record companies had failed to spot his potential. The fourth, Columbia, offered him a contract the day following the review. The late Suze Rotolo, the girlfriend pictured on the iconic cover of Freewheelin’, wrote years later that “Robert Shelton’s review, without a doubt, made Dylan’s career.”
Shelton, who died in Brighton, England, in December 1995, would be thrilled at the news of Dylan’s Nobel Prize. Vindicated, but not surprised. For he spent his life making the case for Dylan (often in the face of fierce opposition) as not just a poet but as a larger-than-life artist who deserved to be bracketed with the 20th century’s greats. He fought innumerable editors for his right to make that case in print.
Eventually Shelton found a sympathetic editor in London, where he moved in 1969 and where I met him a decade later. But he always felt the original 1986 edition of his No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (Morrow), which was subject to harsh cuts, had been “abridged over troubled waters.”
There were disagreements with Doubleday when Shelton refused to compromise on the book’s more serious content; Doubleday pulled out and the book was bought by a British publisher and cut to one volume. In 2011, a revised edition—a sort of director’s cut, carved by me from Shelton’s original manuscript—was published, which finally made Shelton’s case for Dylan.
“Dylan arguably did for the popular song-form what Picasso did for the visual arts, Stravinsky for ‘serious’ music, Chaplin for film, Joyce for the novel,” Shelton writes. “Dylan lived up to the artist’s greatest tasks—growth, exploration, and change.” In 1963, the year of Dylan’s second album, Freewheelin’, which featured a clutch of classics, including “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” Shelton had been scoffed at for dubbing Dylan “the singing poet laureate of young America.”
Yet by 1965, poets polled by the Washington Post hailed him as “America’s Yevtushenko,” and John Clellon Holmes cast him as “the American Brecht.” Christopher Ricks, a critic and professor at Boston University, saw him as “a great amuser, a great entertainer, who belongs with the artists who’ve looked for the widest popular constituency, like Dickens and Shakespeare.” A half century on, there’s no shortage of academicians making the case for Dylan, whose work has been compared to Whitman, Yeats, Eliot, the Kabbalah, and the Bible.
“Desolation Row” (1965) is the song that first caught Ricks’s ear. A true epic, it references Cinderella, Bette Davis, Romeo, Cain and Abel, the Good Samaritan, Noah, “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood,” the Phantom of the Opera, Casanova, and of course “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower”—as Dylan puts it, a “superhuman crew,” assembled from a breathtaking range of cultural references. Ricks sees it as “an extraordinary new enduring version” of Eliot’s The Waste Land and Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad, “a whole new vision of a civilization falling apart.” He adds, “It’s surrealist art... combining exact draftsmanship with the amazing or the impossible to visualize.” The lyric is included in the 2006 Oxford Book of American Poetry.
Skeptics aghast at Dylan’s Nobel laurels should listen, really listen, to the mighty handful of albums he recorded between 1962 and 1966, and to Blood on the Tracks (1975), to hear songs that have become part of our cultural DNA, the phrases that are as much a part of our lingua franca as Shakespeare. Dylan articulated our grievances and our grieving, taking poetry off the bookshelves and loading it on to the jukebox. He wrote songs that have orchestrated our times, songs that are timely yet also timeless.
Joan Baez, Dylan’s sometime girlfriend and his foremost interpreter, puts it well: “His gift with words is unsurpassable.... No songs have been more moving and worthy in their depth, darkness, fury, mystery, beauty, and humor than Bob’s.”
Liz Thomson prepared the restored edition of Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (BackBeat, 2011).